Decker followed the Bastard’s synth-leather jacket into the emergency stairwell he and Lamar had broken into on the way up. Down a spiral of darkness, a chorus of footsteps echoing on metal. They exited the stairs quickly, guns out, then maneuvered the first floor slowly, sidestepping, checking every dark corner.
Then they were out in the back street. Garbage piled up around the buildings, spilling into the street and cramming the smell of years of human waste and neglect into your sinuses and down your throat.
Decker stifled a cough. The whole city smelled like this, but it was still overwhelming when you were next to the source.
They followed Tob to the gargantuan, box-shaped Enforcer vehicle idling in the middle of the street. Tob keyed the doors open and swung himself into the driver’s seat.
The Bastard gave Decker a small grin, eyebrows raised, and climbed into the back seat. Decker followed him up. Jenny slid next to the Bastard on the other side, and the doors lowered shut, sealing them into the dim interior and shutting out a little of the stink.
Tob urged the truck forward, bumping over piles of trash.
“We have three minutes until the evacuation,” Tob said. “Bastard, start a countdown.”
The vehicle plowed through another drift of garbage that rose above the tires, then turned into an alleyway barely wide enough to let them through. Tob shot the alleyway without one scrape, and then they were swerving onto the main street.
They cruised down the street, unlit ghosts of buildings gliding past the windows. The Bastard hummed a calm melody in his throat, barely audible. He paused, cleared his throat. “Two minutes.”
Decker stared out the window, scanning each side street as it flashed past. A vague frustration picked at his concentration.
Escorting the Bastard wasn’t a safer job than anything else. He knew that wasn’t why Tob had picked him for this—it was already established that the man didn’t make any exceptions for his own descendants. But Decker doubted it was for his sparkling wit or mad Bastard-bodyguarding skills.
Nine times out of ten, this is where he ended up—sitting in a back seat behind the boss, within easy reach of Tob’s calculating stare and disapproving gray mustache. He’d graduated training with Jenny and Lamar and the rest, but he’d never really be finished.
Because he couldn’t get his brain to shut up. He couldn’t find his focus, and Tob knew it. Decker scowled at the window, readjusted his grip on his sidearm.
“One minute,” the Bastard said.
Tob took a hairpin turn almost without slowing, flew down a side street.
The Bastard started humming again, tapping one finger on his knee. “15 seconds,” he said.
“Lights up,” Tob said.
“Lights up,” the Bastard repeated, a light edge of amusement in his voice.
In the corner of Decker’s vision, through the tinted windshield, a patch of night glowed yellow, outlining a skyline of towers. A quiet rumble vibrated through the vehicle, and the yellow bloomed to red. Almost imperceptibly, the Bastard grunted.
Outside the truck, several things were happening at once.
First, several explosive charges were making a couple of strategic streets impassable to enforcer trucks. Second, a hundred besieged men and women were hustling their merry way out of the siege, right past several blockades of neutralized enforcers.
Third, StratosCorp was just now realizing all of this, and stirring like an awakened, cranky giant. A giant with a thousand perfectly-synchronized, cybered-up warriors at its command.
Decker breathed deep, filled his lungs with stale truck interior. The thing you had to remember, the thing Tob had repeated throughout training until it was tattooed on his gray matter—the Grid belonged to Stratos, but the city belonged to the outlaws.
It only got hard to remember that when you were running from soldiers that could punch through walls.
“You’re lucky,” Jenny said, her voice low and husky.
Decker waited a second, but she didn’t seem about to offer clarification. “Me, or the Bastard?”
“I’d give my arm to have shot an enforcer today,” she said.
Sometimes it was creepy, the things Jenny seemed to know about. “How did you know it was—” Decker started.
Tob whipped around a curve, and screeched to a halt, slamming everyone forward. Decker pushed away from the back of Tob’s seat, and stared through the windshield. In front of the truck a row of barricade pillars stood up from the street, blazing in the headlights.
Tob cursed and threw the truck into reverse. Then a roar split the earth underneath them, and everything bucked toward the sky.
For a split-second, there was a strange sense of weightlessness, of floating, and then crashing. Grinding metal and splintering glass.
He was lying with his forehead right on a crack in the pavement that cut into his skin, but his head felt heavy and he couldn’t lift it. His ears buzzed like a cacophony of angry insects.
Then he realized he couldn’t breathe, it was like someone was squeezing his empty lungs in a vise. Panic ripped through him. He found his arms, shoved himself onto his back and gasped, open-mouthed for oxygen.
The vise let go and air sobbed into his lungs, gritty and metallic. He opened his eyes. Gray dust swirled around him, illuminated by searing white light.
It took a moment to register in his mind, and then heat flashed through his stomach. Spotlights.
Decker pushed to a crouch, but one leg buckled. His knee. Something smacked into the pavement next to him, spraying splinters of asphalt. Another one to his left, like deadly raindrops. Bullets.
In the haze of dust, he could see the silhouette of the truck a few paces away, tires in the air. He scrambled for it, coughing.
Jenny lay half out of a busted-out window, her hair and face pasty with dust. Her eyes strained white at the corners, she was saying something to him but he couldn’t hear past the buzzing in his ears.
He grabbed under her outstretched arms, dragged her out, staying low and against the side of the vehicle. Her legs hit the ground, and something warm and wet spattered Decker’s face.
Blood spurted from the inside of Jenny’s arm. The artery.
He moved mechanically, pushing her back against the truck with one hand, stabbing his fingers into her armpit with the other, finding the pressure point and pushing hard.
The spurt of blood weakened. Decker gritted his teeth and pressed harder. It stopped.
He lifted his head to scan the street. The dust was settling, and two blazing spotlights glared through the haze like twin suns. Any second now, said a cold, hard voice in his mind. The dust will clear, and they’ll shoot you.
A prone figure lay in the street, beyond the truck. The Bastard. He was on his face, arms and legs moving in slow semi-circles on the pavement, as if he’d forgotten how to get up.
A hand grabbed Decker’s shoulder. He turned, and Tob’s pain-creased face was a few inches from his own. His fingers dug into Decker’s shoulder, and he yelled something, his mustache quivering.
Decker couldn’t hear, but the words were unmistakable on his lips. Get the Bastard.
Decker’s gut twisted, and he looked down at Jenny’s blood soaking oily into his fingers. He couldn’t let go, she’d bleed to death.
Tob let go of his shoulder. Then the old man was crashing past him, hobble-running on a bad leg, toward the Bastard. Right into the open, into the quickly-settling screen of dust.
Decker watched, frozen, his mouth open in silent protest.
Tob wrapped his arms around the Bastard and hoisted him up. The man’s head bobbed limp. Tob took two staggering steps toward the truck.
The first bullet took him in the back and he lurched forward, but kept going toward the truck. His face was taut, expressionless.
It was hard to tell how many more bullets found Tob then, but his back arched and he dropped to one knee. The Bastard fell out of his arms. Tob put his hands down on the pavement, like he was going to do a push-up, and then slumped sideways.
Decker stared, numbly thinking about the story where Tob had snapped an Enforcer’s neck after having every one of his ribs broken. The old guy didn’t just stay down. He’d be getting back up.
The spotlights turned off, and the shooting stopped. Decker crouched by Jenny in the dark, with the smell of blood and shattered street in his nostrils.
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